Blessings & Curses |

Blessings & Curses

April blizzard brings much-needed moisture, but frigid temps and high winds

Kaycee Monnens
for Tri-State Livestock News

It may someday be referred to as “the April blizzard of 2022.” Or, “the blizzard that ended the drought in 2022,” as many are hoping.

But for days it was just a minute-by-minute attempt at surviving, and keeping livestock alive.

“Beggars can’t be choosers” has been the repeated phrase among ranchers during the April blizzard that covered from central Montana to the Northern Plains. Some areas got more than 20 inches of snow, with high winds and dangerous temperatures. The snow comes as a mixed blessing. In drought-stricken areas, the constant prayer has been for moisture, and farmers and ranchers feel they are not in any position to criticize how it comes. Moisture in this form, however, comes with frozen ears, lack of sleep, and loss of life.

Farmers and ranchers have been praying for moisture, but snow delivered with wind and freezing temperatures is a mixed blessing. Many are receiving this in the midst of calving season. Photo by Janie Carlson.

“It’s been pretty brutal, honestly,” says Carrie Roth, who ranches with her husband near Bison, South Dakota. “The wind itself has been unrelenting and the temps have only been in the teens for highs. The two feet of snow that accompanied it where we are located really made movement difficult. It quickly became too deep for pickups and ATVs. We have snowmobiles but the visibility was so poor, unfortunately that wasn’t an option for checking cows and calves either.”

Dawn Martin said the same about their family’s place near Beulah, North Dakota. About 100 of their pairs are turned out on pasture, and they have not been able to tend to them since Tuesday. Closer to the house, Martins are in the thick of calving cows. They had 30 calves born on the first night of the blizzard. “The bad thing is, the cows aren’t even presenting,” Martin said, making it difficult to discern which ones are about to calve. With this extra challenge she, her husband and two sons were checking every half hour. “I told them, ‘Just leave the cows, if you have to (to get the calves to shelter).’ It’s just dangerous,” she said. As far as they are aware, their death count is at four calves, but they have not been able to see the rest of the damage farther from home. The snow is so deep, an axle broke on their loader tractor while feeding.

One bad situation leads to another, it seems. With drought conditions for nearly three years, ranchers have had to overgraze their pastures. Many had an open winter, and no grass led to wind erosion. In some places, like Ludlow, South Dakota, this means that the snow is not even sticking to the ground. Spring Padden says, “I don’t know how many 40-plus mile-per-hour wind days we’ve had, but a lot. A lot more than usual. I think if it wasn’t windy, the snow would have stayed on our pastures better. If you get away from our house, it’s bare, because there wasn’t a lot of old grass to catch the snow. It’s all up against the fence lines.”

The million dollar question is, will this help? With some areas of the region looking hauntingly like the plains of the 1930s–especially in eastern Montana and western North Dakota–the future is uncertain.

North Dakota state climatologist, Dr. F. Adnan Akyüz, says, “You have to keep in mind that the drought is a long-term process. It’s a creeping disaster, and no one-time storm is going to erase the impact of the drought that has been going on for two years, and this is the third year in the making.” Yet, he maintains the possibility of a shift in weather patterns. “It definitely has potential to do so, if it raises the levels of the water. Even if it evaporates, evaporated water is going to remain in the atmosphere, hopefully. That is where potential rainfall events start.”

Padden says, “It’ll help. There will be some moisture, but I don’t think it’ll be as beneficial as we were wishing, going into spring. It’ll be hard. Even if we get rain, I don’t think the pastures will recover. It’ll take a few years. Like I said, we had to overgraze. There’s no old grass to get the new grass going good. It’s going to be a trial, even if it’s a wet spring and summer.”

Even areas that historically have not fallen into drought easily are seeing record dry years. Janie Carlson, who ranches with her son, Jason, near Two Dot, Montana says, “I’ve never seen one like this. This is the worst [drought] I’ve ever seen in our country. Like I said, we’re a mile high and we usually catch quite a bit of moisture coming off the [Crazy Mountains]. So we’ve got her chewed down pretty damn good, trying to operate normally.” The blizzard did not affect them as harshly as it did others. “We’re on the tail end of calving. They’re coming, but not fast and furious. Not like those people in Dakota. That looks like hell,” she says.

Still, they have their own challenges. Not long ago, they paid for hay that was never delivered, with the seller taking their money and vanishing. So, the Carlsons have been making do with caking cows and skimping by as best they can. Looking at the Crazy Mountains, the snowpack is not all it should be, but they are thankful for the moisture received.

In fact, in the true spirit of the rancher, all are grateful, despite the circumstances.

“We are grateful for the moisture,” Roth said. “The crops we did have in before this storm will have a good start. We hope stock dams and creeks fill with the runoff. We are sad it couldn’t come with better circumstances and with better timing. But, as we do all year long, we will deal with whatever gets thrown our way and pivot with our plans as needed.”

Padden says, “We just thank God for every day that we’re able to work here as a family. You don’t have to look far to see people that have it worse. We have food and we have shelter. My uncle and parents, they’ve been through a lot. They always say it’ll rain after a drought. You just try to laugh about it and take it in stride. We’re grateful for our health, to be able to go out and try to save livestock.”

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